The origins of this book were in personal curiosity, in an attempt to answer the question, by what paths did we reach our present state of collective knowledge? Hence I start in the middle of the 18th century, where volume one ended, and continue the story until the present. The book focuses on academic knowledge, but discusses its relation to other forms of knowhow. It concentrates on the West, but notes the exchange of knowledge with other parts of the world, especially with China and Japan. In order to compensate for both national and disciplinary biases, this study adopts a comparative approach. In a field dominated by specialized studies, the book attempts an overview.
A Social History of Knowledge is inevitably concerned with long-term processes, among them reform, quantification, secularization, professionalization, specialization, democratization and globalization. However, I also emphasize the importance of the coexistence and interaction of trends in opposite directions, a kind of equilibrium of antagonisms. Thus the nationalization of knowledge coexists with its internationalization, secularization with counter-secularization, specialization with attempts at interdisciplinarity and democratization with attempts to counter or restrict it. Even the accumulation of knowledge is offset to some degree by what is lost (destroyed, discarded or simply mislaid).
Peter Burke is Professor Emeritus of Cultural History at the University of Cambridge.